In a Glass, Very Darkly - Ian Fleming's The Man With the Golden Gun

'A brainwashed James Bond has tried - and failed - to assassinate M, his boss. Now Bond has to prove he is back on form and can be trusted again. All 007 has to do is kill one of the most deadly freelance hitmen in the world: Paco "Pistols" Scaramanga, the Man with the Golden Gun. But despite his license to kill, 007 is no assassin, and on finding Scaramanga in the sultry heat of Jamaica, he decides to infiltrate the killer’s criminal cooperative - and realizes that he will have to take him out as swiftly as possible. Otherwise 007 might just be the next on a long list of British Secret Service numbers retired by the Man with the Golden Gun...' 
The Man with the Golden Gun is the thirteenth James Bond novel written by Ian Fleming and was first published, posthumously, in 1965. The book begins with Bond - who was missing presumed dead because of the events of You Only Live Twice where he ended the story suffering from amnesia after an epic final encounter with Blofeld - turning up in London again and being granted an audience with M. However, during the meeting, Bond begins to rabidly extol the benefits and superiority of communism and then attempts to murder M with a stream of liquid cyanide. He is foiled and apprehended and it transpires that 007 had been brainwashed by the Russians in Vladivostok - a place he had gone to seeking to unlock something about his past. 
Bond is duly deprogrammed and restored to something resembling his old self by electroshock therapy. Retirement seems the most likely option for our troubled hero but M decides instead to give Bond a new - and quite possibly last - mission. Bond is asked to travel to the Caribbean to terminate Francisco "Pistols" Scaramanga, a legendary killer known as "The Man with the Golden Gun" for his chosen instrument of choice, a gold-plated Colt 45. The feared Scaramanga is backed by Cuba and is known to be responsible for the deaths of several British agents. If Bond succeeds he can perhaps be of use to Queen and Country again, if he fails he will become Scaramanga's latest and most famous victim. 'He forced himself to think of what the broken body of Margesson must have looked like, of the others that this man had killed, of the ones he would kill afresh if Bond weakened. This man was probably the most efficient one-man death dealer in the world.'
Generally regarded to be one of the weaker, if not the outright weakest, of the James Bond novels, The Man With the Golden Gun has a slightly experimental feel and a somewhat unfinished air, almost as if it was accidentally printed just before the final conclusive draft was completed. Apparently Kingsley Amis, who penned the excellent Bond continuation novel Colonel Sun, gave the book a quick polish after Fleming died - with this unsurprisingly leading to enduring speculation about how much of The Man With the Golden Gun Fleming did or did not actually write himself. One salient problem many had with the novel was the way that, brainwashed Bond angle swiftly dispensed with, it quickly returns to business as usual and gives Bond a small-scale adventure that seems anti-climatic after the epic and surreal events of You Only Live Twice. Though daft (Bond novels are nowhere near as serious as some like to think), the brainwashed Bond intro is very gripping and good stuff. 

Bond's travels here take him to Kingston, Jamaica, where he poses as a security expert and tracks down Scaramanga, who unwittingly hires him to look after his yet to be completed Thunderbird Hotel. When Scaramanga hosts a meeting of investors, Bond, with vague similarities to the 1989 Timothy Dalton film Licence To Kill, secretly listens in and quickly discovers there is much more to his target than he suspected. The businessmen here are members of "The Group", an organisation made up of Cuban secret police, American gangsters and Soviet intelligence operatives. This shady collection of characters is in the business of drug-smuggling and industrial-sabotage and seeks to undermine the West and help Cuban-owned sugar plantations to corner the world market. Although Scaramanga is best known for Christopher Lee's highly enjoyable and polished interpretation in the (obviously very different) 1974 film adaption, the Scaramanga of the novel comes across as a fairly normal thuggish villain who has no major ingenious scheme - the plot revolving around drug smuggling and the supply of sugar. It isn't exactly Auric Goldfinger attempting to rob Fort Knox in terms of excitement. It's quite good fun though nonetheless to have Bond undercover - as Mark Hazard of Transworld Consortium.
Although the novel is noticeably less detailed than Fleming's usual fare it still (enjoyably) contains his obsession with food and the general high life of an expense account spy. Dining with secretary and assistant Mary Goodnight at Morgan's Harbour, Bond requests lobsters and 'a pot of that ridiculously expensive foie gras of yours' with champagne on ice. At Blades, 'a grilled Dover sole followed by the ripest spoonful he could gouge from the club Stilton' is Bond's standard lunch and the book is also packed with elaborate references to drink with Bond seemingly quaffing every beverage known to man in the course of the story. 'And there would be drink!" muses a parched Bond, trapped under a scorching Jamaican sun. "Champagne in frosted silver coolers, rum punches. Tom Collinses, whisky sours.' As ever with the Fleming Bond novels there are one or two dated and slightly head-scratching moments for contemporary readers, such as when we read - 'Now it may only be a myth, and it is certainly not medical science, but there is a popular theory that a man who cannot whistle has homosexual tendencies...' 
Fleming's penchant for liberally inserting factual information into the story does rear its head on the topic of Rastafarianism but, happily, Moneypenny, Bill Tanner and, especially, Felix Leiter, all play a part in the story. 
One interesting aspect or undercurrent to The Man With the Golden Gun, and it's a theme that seemed to be gradually creeping into Fleming's work near the end, is that Bond is starting to feel slightly old for the first time in his life and moments of bittersweet nostalgia begin to enter his thoughts as he reflects on the past. In the sultry heat of Jamaica on the trail of Scaramanga, he thinks of Honeychile Wilder, his old flame from Dr No, and a rather poignant passage occurs. ‘What were a couple of hours of heat and boredom in this island compared with memories of Beau Desert and Honeychile Wilder and his survival against the mad Dr No? James Bond smiled to himself as the dusty pictures clicked across his brain. How long ago it all was! What had happened to her? She never wrote. The last he had heard, she had had two children by the Philadelphia doctor she had married.’ 
The Man with the Golden Gun is very readable with some nice touches but on the whole feels like a slight, familiar and somewhat unfinished addition to the series. If Fleming had lived to complete the novel to his satisfaction it could have been much more. As it stands, The Man with the Golden Gun is a decent thriller but only an adequate James Bond book. 
- Jake



c 2010 Alternative 007